Shamma Buhazza transforms Pinterest into a resource to decolonise design
Aligning with our last contributor’s wish to prompt creative action, designer Shamma Buhazza’s approach tests the abilities of graphic design to create space.
Thread of Inspiration is a series in partnership with Pinterest which explores how inspiration can come from unexpected places. Throughout the year we’ll be inviting a host of creatives to create amazing artworks, and sharing the intriguing stories behind how they come up with new ideas. Every other month a new creative will be introduced, tasked with creating new works inspired by the artist who came before them in the chain.
In the final edition of our year-long project Thread of Inspiration, Abu Dhabi-based graphic designer Shamma Buhazza has unexpectedly managed to push and pull Pinterest into a new resource for creatives, working towards the concept of decolonising her graphic design mind.
A project which demonstrates the power an individual holds to utilise tools around them to question and learn, Shamma’s final project developed from a series of questions the designer posed, such as: “How can I create moments of ‘silence’ and ‘noise’ using a platform like Pinterest?” through to “How can I physically and literally ‘take up space’ and tell a story using a board/platform like Pinterest?”
Shamma’s entry point to the project was through the work of our last contributor, French illustrator Aurélia Durand. While holding a very different style to Shamma’s practice, “her passion for change is aligned,” the designer tells us, while recalling those early moments of the project’s growth. Inspired by Aurélia’s wish to creatively prompt action, “I decided to take a more conceptual approach,” says Shamma, aiming to create a series of typographically-led signs, “perhaps ones the characters might use at the protest [Aurélia] depicted in her illustrations to tell a story of a conscious world.”
Aside from aesthetic inspiration, it was one particular quote of Aurélia’s which sparked an idea in Shamma. “What inspired me was when she said, ‘Our stories are told by white people and that is not normal. I think I am the one who can better tell my own stories. I had to take action and start my own thing.’” A quote which led the designer to think back to the texts she studied at university, the project soon turned into an investigation of graphic design education. It would be one where Shamma would learn why such a small segment of design history is broadly taught, but also how she might present the often untold history too.
Deciding to turn back to her bookshelves, Shamma first revisited many of the texts she’d held onto since school. Beginning to realise that not only were the texts she referenced mostly academic, but “90 per cent of the time, they were by white authors,” she points out, “because all I had to refer to was what I was taught.” Throughout her practice, the designer explains she traditionally would apply these theories “as an inspiration to the work I make, where there was an ‘East meets West’ type of vernacular.” Taking the time on this project to assess this method, however, “I began to realise that I needed to revisit my approach and practices as a designer.”
Beginning then to look at herself and her practice deeply, Shamma explains that no matter the stage of your career, “it’s important to break out of old ways of doing and working, and it is never too late to do so.” She continues that “it is important as a POC woman to consider my references and also support other communities in the graphic design field to my best ability… It is important that we do this because if we don’t – who will?”
Investigating further, Shamma’s first reference was the classic tome, Graphic Design History, a book which she began to decolonise in her back garden by physically showing its archaic contents. Quite literally taking the rule book apart and putting it back together again, this led the designer to ask herself, “since we will never be able to erase or undo the damage of colonisation, will we be able to decolonise?” Watching Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The danger of a single story around the same time, the designer settled on the belief that a world without the damage of colonisation can only develop if we’re able to tell varied stories. “Having one perspective on history can lead to preventing us from more complex ways of thinking and doing,” adds Shamma, referencing Chimamanda’s point that “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
With the project beginning to pick up momentum at this stage, Shamma then began to question these texts visually, all via a Pinterest board. Viewers of her board will at first see the designer “essentially figuring out what to do,” before the pins which populate it start to showcase a digital representation of her library. Each providing links for added context or further possible inspiration, Shamma’s discoveries point out the lack of diversity and untold stories in design history. An example she references is the work of Pi-Sheng, an inventor of the first movable type system in China in the 11th Century AD. A significant figure Shamma hadn’t previously heard of, due to education’s usual focus on the Gutenberg printing press introduced in Europe, this is just one example of a Western pedagogical tendency to ignore “an entire continent and several centuries of relevant efforts.”
As well as these more historical findings, as Shamma’s board begins to fill up, viewers will also find a range of references to contemporary Black, Indigenous and POC creatives such as Maram Al Refaei, Raver Jinn and Eric Hu, through to heroes such as Gail Anderson and recent events like Where are the Black Designers. As well as hearing their stories, these creatives also offered visual inspiration for Shamma when beginning to think about the layout of the project, a possible colour palette and typefaces. It’s here that the designer begins to manipulate the board into a newly-functioning resource, and where Shamma develops various visual metaphors to represent the concept of both making space and taking up space too. A key reference here was the work of artist Sho Shibuya for their ability to “create space in existing spaces”.
Initially thinking of turning her personal research and findings into a zine or booklet, Shamma realised keeping the project online-only allowed for more accessibility, and as she rightfully points out, “accessibility is key, especially when it comes to sharing resources.” Deciding instead to keep her research as a public resource on Pinterest, Shamma applied editorial design skills by manipulating the space available on the platform.
Linking to how Shamma has recently “been interested in repurposing tools and stepping away from conventional ways of doing,” Pinterest provided an opportunity for her to “push and figure out new ways of using platforms,” she tells us. “Of course there is only so much we can do in terms of pushing boundaries when it comes to certain platforms and interfaces, and this is where we can be creative.” Inspired by the way Pinterest presents an image as a colour swatch while loading, the designer then created blank pins of varying sizes each stating "this space occupies" followed by the dimensions which are used to create the pin, all to act as moments of space in between references.
A conceptual narrative, this blocked space allows the content to breathe. The layout is purposefully designed to do this, while bearing in mind that the layout and order may change depending on the window size of the viewer’s device. Pins are categorised into colour-coded chapters where a reader can find black representing graphic design, art history finds and facts, yellow showcasing resources on decolonising design education, blue pointing towards resources on diversity and inclusion in design, and finally red representing a tribute to Black, Indigenous and POC designers and their work. A regular user of Pinterest, but usually in a private setting than a public one, Shamma adds that as a platform which is “a good space online to show your tastes and interests,” curating it so specifically takes this one step further.
Throughout each of these chapters are also influential quotes Shamma found during the process. Ramon Tejada became a key influence, for instance, with their instruction: “Make spaces (big spaces) in your bookshelves, leave spaces in our syllabi, literally leave spaces blank.” A point which made the designer “rethink the way I research and reference others through my work,” it’s clear to see Ramon’s quote as an influence in Shamma’s final design. This visualisation of space also encourages a continued conversation with the designer reflecting that “some of the things I learned during this process was that this board in no way or form is complete, or lists every single BIPOC designer and studio in the world. It is a starting point for inspiration, but also a useful place to start and I hope others can collaborate, add their own sections and develop this further.”
The findings displayed in these chapters are then also distilled into a collection of posters inspired by the project. Referencing each of the chapters by their colour palette, “I wanted the overall design approach to be simple,” Shamma tells us, “and to leave spaces for others to talk.” Hence the educational aspect of the project, she was also keen for the overall aesthetic to have an academic tone, leading her to use a serif typeface in a contemporary way and sticking to bold, primary colours “to communicate the fundamentals of school and learning.”
With each reference, Pin, design decision and quote carefully considered throughout the project, Shamma adds that the practice of decolonising her design mind has led to “something that I have never made before,” she says. “I never would have imagined myself to create such a thing, but I am glad it turned out the way it did – which is functioning and a platform that people can use. It also helps that Pinterest as a platform is very visual, and much more exciting and dynamic than a Google Doc, for instance.”
As the last contributor in a project which has seen Maaike Canne create a series of futuristic illustrations inspired by Ricardo Bessa’s Nicer Tuesdays talk, which then became a series of still-life photographs evoking mystery by Puzzleman Leung, before being twisted into typography by Louise Borinksi, given a new life in a joyful parade by Aurélia Durand, to see Shamma sew the last thread in the project by pushing Pinterest’s platform to the max feels experimentally apt. As well as a thoughtful reflection of the tumultuous times 2020 has presented, through this final (and ever-growing) resource Shamma’s work is a powerful example of how vital conversations will continue. Testing herself throughout the project with the hope of offering a resource to others, “I feel that I challenged myself doing this,” Shamma finally adds, “instead of creating something that was in my comfort zone.”
About the Author
Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.